Last week I had a nice long chat with my agent and we were talking about future projects. I'd sent him a couple ideas via email (including, of course, the joke ideas, like an adventure story where all of the characters are penguins because Penguin Lit is the new Vampire Luv and there's already a major publishing house well-suited to selling Penguin Lit) and we were discussing which books I wanted to work on in what order. I've got my next three novels planned, and a couple other ideas bubbling away in Maybe Someday status. One of the upcoming book ideas is something that he felt was going to be a difficult sell these days, and I thought from the way he was talking about it that he didn't really get what the book was about.
"That's because I did a crappy job of pitching it in the email," I said.
"People keep saying that," he said. "And it just makes me want to bite them*. It's not the pitch, it's the story. If the heart of the story, the real meaning, isn't there, then who cares about the pitch? The book won't live up to it."
And that got me thinking, because I like to think and do it as often as I can and also because it's a good piece of advice that you don't hear much. Especially from agents. People talk a lot (and I mean a lot) about queries and the pitch and while I think that some people don't understand what a pitch is, it does seem that when you look at a great many queries, the biggest problem with the pitch is not the pitch, but the story. The book itself, that is.
Nobody wants to hear this, I'm sure. "You might think about working on the book some more," is something nobody wants to say, either. Well, I might, because I'm a jerk. But I don't mean to say that if there's a problem with the book that becomes evident in the query, it's because the book is stupid or based on a stupid idea and should be abandoned. What I mean is that the writer may not be focusing on the heart of the story.
What do I mean by the heart of the story? I sort of mean something like theme, certainly. But more than that, I think I'm talking about the core value that belongs to the writer which has sparked her to write this book in this way. Cormac McCarthy's book "The Road" is a narrative about a man and his son making their way through a post-apocalyptic America, yes, but the core value that drove McCarthy to write this was paternal love. And I'd bet that if you queried it as "a father's love for his son drives him to walk across America in search of a safe haven in Florida," it would get more agent/editor/publisher attention than "a man fights off roving bands of survivors in a dead land after a violent catastrophe." There are a lot of good reasons for that, mostly having to do with human responses to human emotions and readers caring about characters who are emotionally invested in their own stories. The book I'm revising for my agent is about friendship being tested by opposing worldviews. That's much more human and engaging, I think, than talking about revolution and politics.
Do not think that I mean this as just a different way to pitch the book in a query. Because that's not what I'm really getting at. What I really mean to say is that there is some reason you chose to write the book you've written. There is something that this book affirms for you, or explores on a deep level. (Well, maybe not, and if that's the case, your book likely sucks because it's empty of humanity and nobody wants to read that kind of book. There, I've said it.) Think about that original impulse in you, the thing inside you that responds to the book you've written. If necessary, make that into a more important, more active (but not blatant and in-your-face) part of the story. And when you've figured out what the real motivation behind you writing the book is and you've made sure that your book is actually about that, then two things (at least) will happen: it will be a better book, and it will be easier to talk about in a query. And as a better book that's easier for you to discuss, it should (I predict) be easier for you to connect with an agent, and easier for that agent to connect with a publisher. And in the end, that will also make it easier for your story to connect with readers.
I know--or I think I know--that some types of stories (spy stories especially) don't seem to have anything to do with relationships or really deep characters or emotions, so possibly this advice doesn't fit for all genres. I don't know, because that's way outside my area of expertise (or pretend expertise, at any rate). What do you think?
* Extra points to him for saying he wants to bite people. Seriously, he's so cute sometimes.